What Is the Proper Role for Government?

One reader of my post on San Francisco’s so-called “Happy Meal ban” made an interesting comment, that if parents would just say “no,” there’d be no need for such a ban. (For the record, I completely agree.) He also noted that the government stepping in to tell people what to do when they can’t make good decisions is “fascism.”   Leaving aside the use of “fascism” (one of those words, like “socialism,” that gets thrown around a lot, but tends to distort and/or destroy thoughtful discussion, given how loaded the term is, and how many different meanings people assign to it), he’s raising an important question (one I’ve pondered a lot over the last few years, particularly in light in the political divide in the U.S.): What IS the proper role for government? When should government step in, and when should it leave things alone? 

I suspect most people would agree that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of a square with fascism, communism, anarchy, and, for lack of a better term, a completely free-market/libertarian system (government doing nothing more than defense/criminal justice) on each corner. (The black-masked folks who advocate anarchy ought to try living in Somalia: I don’t think anarchy is working out too well for most people there.) Call it “liberal democracy” or, if you’d prefer, “market democracy.” But within that square is a lot of variation.

Take the question of telling people what to eat. Why should the government be involved in that? Think about all the different ways, even in the U.S. with its relatively more market-based system, that government actions affect what we eat. It subsidizes many agricultural products, such as corn, with one result that products are loaded with useless calories in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. It creates nutritional guidelines. It tests foods to make sure they’re safe. It regulates how products are advertised.

Should it be doing any of these things, or should it be left entirely to individual choice? Or consider seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws. Why do we have these? Shouldn’t people just make the appropriate decisions and have to live with the consequences? Rather than creating and enforcing laws, maybe it’d be easier if we just said, “Look: you’re free to ride without a helmet, or drive without a seatbelt, but here’s the deal: if you have an accident, you’re on your own. You won’t get a dime of government money. Your insurance company is completely off the hook. And you won’t have a single legal recourse. If your family doesn’t have enough money for your care, then sorry. It’s been nice knowing you.” I suspect most people would find that harsh (although seatbelt and helmet usage rates would likely skyrocket). And even those who might support that approach theoretically might feel differently in practice observing families trying to grapple with the consequences.

That’s an extreme example so let’s return to the food issue. What would happen if government made no attempt to influence people’s nutritional habits? There could be some good consequences if they began by removing subsidies for food (in spite of the image of farm subsidies going to family farmers, the vast majority go to large agribusinesses, and we could have a big impact on health by lowering support for the unhealthy calories in high fructose corn syrup), but if the government isn’t supporting its citizens by providing neutral information (questionable how neutral it is now with the various interest groups leaning on civil servants) on nutrition, or by taking a more activist role to enforce healthy choices, can individuals get the information they need to make informed choices? Can individuals on their own counterbalance the strength of large companies in the market (companies that spend billions of dollars to advertise, manipulate, and exploit any advantage to sell more)? 

And at the end of the day, what are the consequences of the behavior the government (in this case the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) are trying to change? In this case, we’re looking at the well documented increase in obesity, and lifestyle-induced diabetes, all pointing to a longer term increase in health care costs, which, under our current system, we’ll all bear, either as taxpayers or members of health insurance plans. If people won’t say “no,” when should government step in?

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  1. I think that the gov. should be limited to educating. We all know McDonald’s is bad, yet they are still thriving everywhere. While I do not deny that the growing unhealthiness of our society continues to have significant and dire consequences, I think that it is wrong for people to be told what to eat. Next beer will be outlawed because that is bad for you too in consistently large quantities. Some may regurgitate the Omnivores Dilemma about corn subsidies making junk food cheap. While this is a powerful insight and a great read with a lot of really good points, the thing that strikes me is that corn subsidies is what people take away from this book. This is NOT a jab at you. While I agree that subsidies should be drastically rearranged, doing so will not change people’s habits. If the cost of a twinkie goes up by 20 cents, fatty will still get his num-num. If we eliminate subsidies then corn syrup will just be made in China. Hell the Chinese can make and ship steel halfway around the world for cheaper than we do here. If costs suddenly go up by a significant amount, these people will just eat more fried chicken because they either choose to, knowing that it is bad, or they just don’t give a shit. It all comes down to intelligence and culture. This tends to be the lower income demographic. While one may argue the subsidies route again (junk food is cheap), I think it is more a function of intelligence. Really the smarter you are, generally the more money you make. Not all people that make lower incomes are stupid, far from it. But I will be willing to bet that these are the ones that are healthier because they actually make an attempt to eat better. NH is a really interesting place where this has been well documented. North of the White Mountains obesity and diabetes are triple that of the rest of the state. This has been well documented by ongoing State funded studies. This is by far the poorest part of the state with a very limited highly skilled jobs and a population that has been holding close steady for decades. Nearly all of the college-educated people do not move back to this area after they get their degree. Instead they move to more affluent areas with higher paying jobs. This really has a detrimental effect on the gene pool in the long term. I am not saying that everyone is stupid up north, far from it. But these facts are tough to ignore.Now I have to assume that we all accept the principals of evolution and genetics, and we can look at this on a larger scale. Some people are fat because their parents were fat and they have those genes. They will probably breed with another similar body type and have more fat kids. In the same sense, dumb people tend to breed with dumb people….a lot. Lower income households tend to have more children early on in life, while well-educated people are waiting later in life and have less. This has an effect that is two fold: 1) There are more genetic fat dummies because they have more kids, and 2) they have them earlier making exponentially more fat dummies. This is causing the shrinking middle class and higher obesity rates. While this may not cover all of it, you get my logic. We are breeding ourselves into stupidity and obesity. Unfortunately there is no cure for stupidity with all of the protective laws that we have, thereby eliminating the effectiveness of natural selection and causing the human race to spiral towards an inevitable decline. The horribly made movie Idiocracy (by Mike Judge) illustrates this phenomenon very well. So how do we solve this problem? Simple. Divert a measly few million dollars from the military budget and spend it on education and free birth control and reduce the incentives for poor people having more kids that they can absolutely not afford. Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting the elimination of these benefits, but rather to get rid of incentives that encourage having 5 kids instead of 3 because your check gets a lot bigger.

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